Back before there was a preventative vaccination, and before the vaccine had made its way to the Ozark hills and hollows, the deadly threat of rabies was very real.
By the time human beings exhibit symptoms, the end result of contracting the virus, usually transmitted through animal bites, was oftentimes fatal.
Now what, you might ask, is a madstone? I asked the same question. Believe it or not, madstones do exist, although their curative powers might be questionable.
Madstones, also called bezoar stones or enteroliths, are mineral deposits sometimes found in the bowels of herbivore animals, such as cows and deer, and compacted into a rock-like substance.
They are called madstones because they were oftentimes used to treat rabies, one of the better known symptoms of which is hallucinations and hyper erratic activity.
In plain speak, rabies seems to make the victim go crazy, or “mad.”
Supposedly, madstones from a deer in particular were the most effective as a healing substance, and I’ve also read that madstones from albino deer specifically were the ones to use.
Folklorist Vance Randolph (1892-1980) talked to a number of folks in the early 20th century who had used madstones to treat rabies, though he admitted he had never actually seen it done.
The stone – which was described as typically whitish and porous – is applied to the bite wound where the rabies virus was transmitted.
The stone is supposed to just stick onto the wound all by itself without any kind of binding. Depending on the source, when the stone finally falls off the wound on its own – be it a matter of hours or even days – you dip it in fresh milk and reapply the stone. This is done repeatedly.
Although treatments vary, milk seems to be a common factor. Some say that when the milk no longer turns green after the stone is place in it, the patient is safe.
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One thing that seems to stand out to me is that the madstone needed to be applied just after the bite occurred, indicating that it was supposed to be more of a preventative measure, rather than something that was used to treat rabies days after infection by the virus, after the symptoms were already obvious.
At that point, even modern medicine says the prognosis isn’t good, and Ozark healers might have been more pragmatic about it in those cases as well. “Well, there’s only so much we can do.”
I suspect at that point the patient would be placed in God’s hands to wait on a miracle. Incidentally, Randolph also wrote about faith healers in the old Ozarks too, which is interesting stuff.
As to madstones themselves, I’ve never seen one. And if it takes one to save my life from rabies, I hope I never do.
Fortunately, as far as health goes, we live in modern times, where society is armed with advanced medicine to hopefully extend our poor mortal lives a little bit on this rock.
Still, I do wonder if there was anything ever to madstones curing, or preventing, early stages of rabies infection.
I don’t wonder that from a superstitions standpoint, but from a scientific one. Is it possible that the natural minerals draw out the infection somehow? Probably not.
Still, people obviously used the madstone rabies treatment for SOME reason for centuries. If it obviously wasn’t effective, why continue to do it? Just for the sake of doing SOMETHING?
I can understand that. Real or not, like most of our old Ozark superstitions, it’s fun to think about.
(Wes Franklin can be reached by email at email@example.com, or by USPS mail at 12161 Norway Road, Neosho, MO 64850.)